“When you know, you know,” says Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in-house perfume creator, about the moment he knew the ‘Gabrielle’ fragrance — reportedly in production for three years — was complete.
Polge’s statement may carry emotion, but there’s a reason for his sentimentality. He was only four years old when his father, the legendary perfumer Jacques Polge, took the reins from Henri Robert as Chanel’s in-house perfumer. The older Polge was responsible for some of the brand’s most timeless fragrances: ‘Coco Mademoiselle’, ‘Allure’, and the inimitable ‘Chance’. The younger Polge has described his formative years as having had an acute awareness of his responsibility – essentially not being able to escape his destiny.
And, as destiny would have it, Olivier Polge joined Chanel in 2013 upon his father’s retirement. His initial task? To create Chanel’s first fragrance in 15 years. This is where the story of ‘Gabrielle’ begins. Inspired by Coco Chanel’s birth name, Gabrielle, the luminous composition is an ode to her free-spirited nature. A rebel at heart, she was passionate and radiant, always choosing to be the woman she wanted to be.
“I went into all the fragrances that she [Coco Chanel] was involved with, where she left us a very clear sign of her personality,” Polge tells me in the jasmine and tuberose fields in Grasse, which the company had the foresight to acquire in partnership with owner Joseph Mul in 1987.
Grasse, a town located in the south of France, has had a legendary status as the cradle of perfumery for over 300 years. When the iconic ‘N°5’ fragrance was born in 1921, its creator Ernest Beaux selected Grasse as the source for jasmine. Soon after, all branches of perfumery moved into the small town – from extraction plants to merchants, every sector involved with the trade came to settle here.
“When you know, you know.”
Polge credits Chanel with having safeguarded a legendary heritage. “Jasmine production in Grasse was on a steady decline, and we feared that we would no longer have enough for our formulas,” he recalls. “At the time, no one was concerned with replanting jasmine, so we conducted a scientific study to find a viable rootstock and bypassed the industry by controlling all of the links in the production chain, from growing the plant right through to its extraction. This partnership [the acquisition in 1987] provides a guarantee of both the olfactory quality and the quantity of flowers required for Chanel fragrances,” continues Polge as he describes his new floral creation.
The Chanel ‘Gabrielle’ perfume is composed of a solar flower and based on a bouquet of four white flowers: a creamy and enveloping heart of exotic jasmine, the fruity green notes of ylang-ylang, a fresh and sparkling orange blossom, and Grasse tuberose (the pièce de résistance) in its absolute purest form. For a first fragrance, it boasts the sweet smell of success for the nose behind it.
Polge, however, is a humble, quiet, and almost media-shy man. The journey of his foretold destiny leads him to a room with 15 journalists interrogating him on every aspect of the perfume, from the inspiration behind it to the name and the bottle itself. He answers every question thoroughly, yet shows restraint on one particular subject – perhaps a sign of how much he has learnt from his legendary father.
“Sorry, I’m not really answering your question,” he says apologetically after staying quiet for several seconds when asked about the extraction process in the fields. “In our world of fragrance, there is no intellectual property, so what you say is what you give away.”